Please see my conversation with Ted Kerr, Programs Manager at Visual AIDS, recently published at Cineaste. Initially asked to discuss Dallas Buyer’s Club we felt we needed to take a lengthier look at the much broader phenomenon of retrospective looking at AIDS fueled by home movie images of the crisis, often shot by AIDS video activists like myself. In the piece we suggest that “the past, signified by the home movies of AIDS, in particular, has many cultural functions, and just as many cultural formations. We begin with Matthew McConaughey’s butt (where else!), and use it as our entry into a lengthy discussion of Dallas Buyers Club, as well as nearly a score of past and present alternative AIDS videos that also broker in activist made home-movie-like images of a crisis past—Like a Prayer (DIVA TV, 1989), Keep Your Laws Off My Body  (Catherine Saalfield, Zoe Leonard, 1990), Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (Mark Rappaport, 1992), Philadelphia (Jonathan Demme, 1993), Silverlake Life (Peter Friedman, Tom Joslin, 1993), Video Remains (Alexandra Juhasz, 2005), Sex Positive (Daryl Wein, 2008), How to Survive a Plague (2012), Heart Breaks Open (William Maria Rain, 2011), Liberaceón (Chris Vargas, 2011), Sex in an Epidemic (Jean Carlomusto, 2011), We Were Here (David Weissman, 2011), When Did you Figure Out You had AIDS (Vincent Chevalier, 2011), United in Anger (Jim Hubbard, 2012), Untitled (Jim Hodges, Carlos Marques da Cruz, Encke King, 2012), Bumming Cigarettes (Tiona McClodden, 2012), he said (Irwin Swirnoff, 2013), and the poster campaign Your Nostalgia is Killing Me (Vincent Chevalier with Ian Bradley-Perrin, 2013). With Philomena (Stephen Frears, 2013), we return our conversation to more conventional fare before concluding our thoughts upon so many home video returns.”

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 “Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me” (2013), a poster designed for posterVIRUS by Vincent Chevalier and Ian Bradley-Perrin

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So many anniversaries, and so much fascination with the 90s! Looks like Watermelon Woman (Dunye, 1995) is going to be part of the posse of re-views too (slated for Framline 2012 retrospective, more soon). Given the spate of new films focusing upon the history of ACTUP/AIDS activism circa 1987 (United in Anger, Vito, How to Survive an Epidemic, We Were Here, Sex in an Epidemic) and a new-found fascination for the now old new queer cinema that was borne from AIDS’ sorrow, anger, and community, it is a pleasure to get to also see a new film, Still Around, that both looks at the legacy of AIDS, and reminds us that it is a living, breathing phenomenon of our now.

The film links fifteen original, diverse shorts that remind us—without the safety and nostalgia of distance—how AIDS activism (and NQC) linked a fierce, radical, experimental, and beautiful cultural production with sharp political commentary and profound personal expression.

In the past few days, I’ve seen two powerful film screenings featuring works that historicize AIDS in the 1980s: We Were Here (“the first documentary to take a deep and reflective look back at the arrival and impact of AIDS in San Francisco”) and United in Anger: A History of ACTUP.

Now, most people weren’t AIDS activists, and fewer still are professional AIDS remembers (a role several of us seem to have been gifted in the last few years), but I am both, and in the second role, have been asked to write or speak about the remembering of AIDS in three upcoming venues: a publication on the 25 year anniversary of ACTUP with the Quarterly Journal of Speech, a talk about recent AIDS video at Visible Evidence documentary conference in August, and a lecture in October at Concordia University for their nineteen-year long community lecture series and course on AIDS, Concordia HIV/AIDS Project. Most people don’t remember AIDS: in particular how we fought, how we cared and loved, how we raged, what we won, who we lost. This non-remembering of AIDS is a kind of recollection crisis in its own right, particularly affecting younger queers (of color) who don’t somehow know that there was unimaginable death, anger, activism, community-building, and art made because of AIDS, practices that continue to be highly relevant (if absent) to AIDS, queer youth, and the dearth of activism more generally.

I find that these two video projects (and Jean Carlomusto’s Sex in an Epidemic, and my own Video Remains, and others) each approach this recent remembering project with different forms, themselves reflective of the aims of their remembering goals. In short, We Were Here emotes and United in Anger rages–these feelings evident already in their titles–but also in their documentary approaches. WWH personalizes the crisis, focusing closely on six people with a soft and warm camera, evocative music, stories of personal loss and commitment, and a camera that lingers on tears (producing the same in its audience). Meanwhile, UIA moblizes a cold, sharp video look at a large group of speakers, and an even more clinical body of activist documentation of demonstrations and meetings, allowing us to feel that these images stand in for a mass of similar voices and a compendium of events and actions, and inviting us to enter through their anger and action (just another player in a movement of individuals that can lead to change). Both approaches feed us, although in different ways. Remembering AIDS–which was itself a complex amalgam of emotion, action, living, dying, loving, politics, and representation–demands as many complimentary approaches as we can afford and can bear. While we are all not professional AIDS remembers, nor need we be, we can all learn from this history, particularly in relation to its sustaining models of personal and political action in the name of human rights, health care, and the power of people to help themselves and thereby better their community and world.

I had the opportunity to view screeners of two new AIDS documentaries: Sex in an Epidemic (Jean Carlomusto) and ACT UP New York Highlights: I (Jim Hubbard, Sarah Schulman, and James Wentzy), thanks to their distributor, Outcast Films.

While there is much to recommend each,  I am interested in focusing here on how the videos mine the AIDS activist video archive (something I’ve written about, and made videos on, elsewhere). Going against the grain of contemporary media’s fear of duration, the exposed (nothing cut-away to!) talking-head, and stylistic simplicity, ACT UP NY‘s filmmakers carefully arrange clips from the ACT UP Oral History’s hundreds of hours of oral history into two lengthy topical sections around which its diverse and erudite interviewees speak at length and with complexity. The documentary is decidedly upbeat, almost buoyant, as it focuses upon the historic (and still continuing) successes and triumphs of ACT UP: self-empowerment of gays and lesbians, re-defining healthcare politics and patients’ rights, forming strategic coalitions across outdated divides, respecting individual’s needs while framing them into larger political analyses, and most critically for me, mobilizing (and then re-mobilizing) representation. For the film reflexively re-produces (twenty years later, through its contemporary interviews that address the twenty-years past) the very AIDS activist project it tells: radicals need to document and archive their own stories so as to take power over meaning, politics, self (representation) and history.

Which is, of course, also the self-reflexive project of Sex in an Epidemic, which tells the history of the invention and ever  changing stakes of safer sex education and activism (much of it made in the form of video or its processes documented via video).  Jean Carlomusto, a doyenne of AIDS activist video, edits from (her) archival images of AIDS actions, testimonials, video actions, and completed (safer sex) videos to create a present-day history also self-reflexively focusing upon the power of self-representation for (safer sex) education and personal and community liberation. Interestingly, this documentary is more elegiac, relying, as it must on the archived testimonies of safer sex educators and activists who died of AIDS even as they fought for today’s successes (while the Oral History Project has the at least slightly more uplifting project of gathering testimony from those who lived, although of course, all of this is itself time-dependent, today’s alive are always tomorrow’s gone). This documentary takes the form of Carlomusto’s earliest activist work, often made by myself and others for GMHC’s cable access show, “Living With AIDS”: images we took (and saved) of our community (its activists and experts) and actions (unrecorded by dominant media), edited into radical accounts that educate in their time and then last for others (to be re-cycled in the name of remembering, honoring and learning).